Since 1962, owner and U.S. Coast Guard–licensed captain Terry Buzzard has gotten to know the San Juan Islands and surrounding miles of water pretty well. Having hauled mail for the Post Office, salvaged wrecks, assisted in oil spill cleanups, and ferried passengers throughout the San Juan Islands, he has built quite a resumé of seafaring. This relationship with water isn't so surprising considering he began boating at the age of 3 when he was allowed to pilot a single-horsepower boat by himself with his trained rescue dog, Rusty.
Regardless of the actual job he's performing, Terry is always drawn to whales. By 1978, this fascination lead him to chartering trips specifically for whale watching, especially toward the schools of orca that made the region their home. Looking back, he's pretty certain his boat was the only one in the area at the time dedicated to the thrill of witnessing some of the world's largest and most beautiful animals. Today, the waters are spotted with various boats filled with passengers snapping pictures of the great aquatic beasts and shouting ululations whenever one smacks its enormous tail against the water, takes a playful leap, or belts a Mariah Carey song.
Terry's boat, the 110-foot Island Caper, provides generous sightlines to all passengers via its spacious outdoor deck and ample indoor viewing areas, and is decked out with a 34-speaker sound system. In business for 50 years, Island Mariner Whale Watching also employs a seaplane to help spot whales and guide tours. With his chief navigator––a 5-year-old airedale terrier also named Rusty––Terry is right out there amid the excitement, ferrying whale watchers and sharing his life-long passion.
Outer Island Expeditions' fleet of kayaks and boats safely cruises at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour through frothy crests ebbing amid the striking sights and wildlife of the San Juan islands. Venturing as far as 50 miles into Canadian waters, whale-watching excursions foster personal rapport between patrons and boat-side orcas, gray whales, or humpback whales trying to learn human etiquette for future espionage missions. Tours of Stuart Island's Turn Point lighthouse begin aboard a 22-foot Kodiak skiff, which buoys patrons through 16 miles of waters inhabited by sea lions and porpoises before they disembark and hike to the lighthouse's historical museum. Fishing charters set sail in search of ocean creatures and potable salt water from all of Outer Island Expeditions' four launch points: Smuggler's Villa Resort, Semiahmoo Resort, Lopez Island, and The Willows on Lummi Island.
If there’s a whale breaching on the protected waters of the San Juan Islands, there’s a good chance a passenger on Mystic Sea Charters’ 100-foot vessel will see the splashy spectacle. The company’s five- to six-hour tours have an impressive track record when it comes to spotting the gargantuan mammals, introducing tour-goers to different species of whale up to 99% of the time. Onboard the ship, a naturalist divulges facts about ocean life as passengers watch for whales from the heated cabin or from the deck, which has 4-foot railings so guests can hold on if whales start singing and dancing to the hit song “Rock the Boat.” The company promises that voyagers will see at least one gray, orca, humpback, or minke whale, depending on the season. If not, they’ll receive a follow-up whale-watching tour for free.
When the producers of Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home were casting for the roles of coastal marine patrollers, they didn't look to the scores of hopeful actors in Hollywood, opting instead to find boating professionals with real experience. Their search led them to Orcas Island Eclipse Charters founders Dan and Denise Wilk, whose extensive knowledge of aquatic wildlife made them a serendipitous choice for sharing the camera with Hollywood's most famous orca.
Aboard their 56-foot vessel, Dan and Denise continue to share the passion that led them to the big screen in the first place. Their enthusiasm shines through to passengers while they guide tours into the habitats of killer whales and harbor seals. Occasionally, expert guides direct passengers to look up from the water to spot deer on nearby land or bald eagles soaring through the sky above. When asked how they happen upon so many natural specimens on their trips, Dan and Denise would tell you they don't leave their tours up to chance, coordinating excursions with a whale-watching service that pinpoints where the underwater mammals are feeding.
The month of May kicks off the peak of orca-sighting season, a time when land lovers float out to experience the enchantment of killer whales and avoid the temptation to shamelessly reference freeing Willy. As the captain's log reads, 90% of Western Princes's tours encounter orcas, and 100% of orcas are absolutely adorable when imagined with a bowler hat on their head. Additional sightings of porpoises, harbor seals, sea lions, and bald eagles are common along with occasional celebrated guest appearances by minke whales, lush gray whales, and paparazzi-swarmed humpback whales.